Saturday, 25 July 2015

Exhibition by 31 Women - Peggy Guggenheim.






30 west 57 street, NYC                          Jan. 5-31 1943

 Welcome to Exhibition by 31 Women, at Peggy Guggenheim’s remarkable New York Gallery. Before we enter, it is necessary to correct a misconception of which authors of several tomes are guilty. Whatever they may imply, Art of This Century was not just an exhibition that introduced Jackson Pollock to the wider world. It was an art gallery in New York, run by Peggy Guggenheim, which held a new exhibition almost every month from 1942 to 1947 and introduced numerous new, and not so new artists to the New York public, Pollock was merely the loudest. The gallery itself, which was a triumph of modernist design, was as revolutionary as any of the exhibitions.

Peggy in her gallery, just to her left are 2 paintings
which appeared at the Exhibition by 31 Women.
Top, Leonor Fini's 'Shepherdess of the Sphinxes'
Below, Leonora Carrinton's 'Horses of Lord Candlestick' 

Peggy Guggenheim (b. 1898) has been called the ‘Mistress of Modernism’. She was a New Yorker and an heiress. Her biographies try to emphasise that she was a poor relation of the Guggenheim family; her father, having made some unwise investments, went down somewhat unintentionally with the Titanic. However, by the 1940’s, Peggy had an investment income of approximately $400,000 per annum, which is not really most peoples’ idea of a poor relation.

In 1941 she returned to New York after living in Europe for more than 15 years. Towards the end of this time she had found her vocation, as more than just a collector of modern art. She did not send out minions to purchase works for her, like her uncle Solomon of the Guggenheim Foundation. She had lived in England and France and gradually immersed herself within the artistic community that she championed. She had three husbands, (two artists and a writer) and numerous affairs with creative men including Samuel Becket and Yves Tanguy.

In Europe she built up an important collection of modernist art, initially with advice from Andre Breton, Herbert Reid and Marcel Duchamp, but gradually relying more on her own judgement. She bought work by everyone from Malevich & Mondrian to Salvador Dali & Leonora Carrington, though not much of the work she bought was by women. At one stage she deliberately set out to purchase one work of art every day. She left Paris a bare two days before the German army arrived. Had they caught her they would probably have destroyed both her collection (of degenerate art) and herself (a Jew). 
Peggy seems to have had remarkably little idea of the danger she was in, hiding behind her American passport. This said, she gave 500,000 francs to the Emergency Rescue Committee, which organised the escape from France of vulnerable persons, and she personally subsidised the escape to the USA of artists including Andre Breton and Jacqueline Lamba. She left Europe in 1941 with the Bretons, her own family, her collection and Max Ernst, who would soon become her third husband.

In New York, Ernst was to be one of three men important to the 31 Women Exhibition, the other two were Marcel Duchamp and Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler. They all contributed intellectual and practical support when Peggy Guggenheim opened her New York gallery, one of three women to do so in the 1940’s. The gallery was named Art of This Century, after the catalogue of her collection (pub. 1942). Guggenheim’s brief to her architect was revolutionary; not just a museum for her collection and not only a commercial gallery to sell new work, but a place for minds to meet. However she had no interest in a reverential atmosphere. She envisioned a strikingly modern gallery, a vibrant, innovative space, encouraging visitors to interact with the art and each other. Guggenheim had the commercial acumen to realise that, being on the 7th floor, her gallery needed to be a place that was talked about. She hired Kiesler to design the interior.

Kiesler was an experienced designer, a director at Columbia University and a designer for the Julliard School of Music. He had published his theories on art and space (1939 “On Correalism and Biotechnique”). He was extravagant with Guggenheims’ brief, eg. using seasoned oak and linen where pine and cotton were specified. The resulting gallery was a Modernist masterpiece, conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk or total art work designed to place no barriers between the viewer and the art. Keisler invented entirely new display techniques; he said, “Today the framed painting on the wall has become a decorative cipher without form or meaning, or else, to the more susceptible observer, an object of interest existing in a world distinct from his. Its frame is… a plastic barrier across which man looks from the world he inhabits to the alien world in which the work of art has its being. That barrier must be dissolved.” (Dearborn pp196-7 &notes pp342)

This theory was well in keeping with much of the modernist art displayed. It was achieved practically by taking large pictures out of heavy frames and suspending them, apparently in mid-air. Smaller works were put into viewing devices, so visitors could leaf through a ‘file’ of pictures and were even encouraged to handle some of the work. This was the first inter-active gallery in the world, showing Surrealists like Ernst & Tanguy alongside Abstractionists such as Alexander Calder & Mondrian. At the opening (20/10/1942) Guggenheim famously wore one earring designed by Calder and another by Tanguy, demonstrating her commitment to both fields.

Peggy Guggenheim said “Opening this gallery and its collection, at a time when people are fighting for their lives and freedom is a responsibility of which I am fully conscious. This undertaking will serve its purpose only if it serves the future instead of recording the past.” (press release on the gallery opening, Dearborn pp. 201)

The concept of an art centre, challenging recognised ways of viewing and experiencing art, made it an innovative and radical experience, a total contrast with traditional galleries. It was truly original and highly influential in years to come, as a place where not only was art viewed and sold, but ideas were swapped in an atmosphere of fun and entertainment rather than’ high art.’ The gallery made the art highly accessible to the general public, despite having to negotiate the lift up to the 7th floor. This ‘democratisation’ of art was one of the gallery’s intentions, in keeping with the political leanings of many of the artists shown.

The gallery became a meeting place for European artists in exile, inc. Breton & the Surrealists, but American artists soon arrived; Guggenheim had begun collecting their work before the gallery even opened. She deliberately contrasted her new interest in encouraging these lesser known Americans with her internationally known Modernists. Monthly exhibitions of art for sale included many works from American artists.

It was Duchamp who first noted Peggy Guggenheim’s unusual status as a female gallery owner and suggested that her second exhibition should be an all woman show. This combined with the determination to show work by unknown or unproven artists, produced the Exhibition by 31 Women, dedicated specifically to the female members of the avant-garde. Not all of these 31 artists were unknown, but most were not known in New York.

That so many of these women artists could loosely be regarded as surrealists was no coincidence. Max Ernst was instrumental in both selecting and collecting much of the work for the show. There were plenty of women surrealists to choose from, despite the attitude of the formal surrealist artists, Breton, Ernst, Dali etc., who were into Freud, took women as muses and aspired to feminine ways of thinking/imagining, in their search for interior and subconscious truths.  However they did not inquire too deeply of the women they knew about the reality of women’s consciousness.

Women artists, in the main, adopted surrealism as a means of expressing their own individuality, while the men were largely more interested in visual puns and Freudian iconography. Surrealism for these artists was a very personal journey, from the lonely surreal landscapes of Kay Sage to the whimsy of Julia Thecla's ballerinas. Not all the 31 exhibitors were Surrealists, the rest were mostly abstract artists. From Sophie Taeuber Arp, who before 1915 was creating some of the earliest abstract work of any artist, man or woman, to Irene Rice Pereira who made multi dimensional abstract paintings on Perspex, there was great variety in their work. Two sculptures were definitely included, a demountable column by Louise Nevelson and an abstract mobile by Xenia Cage.

We don’t have time in one short essay to examine all 31 women artists. I believe that the fact that this exhibition, by women artists, happened at all is more important than the works of art shown. However I have some found some detailed information on all of the 31 women, even the most obscure; their biographies are already on this blog. The actual works of art which were exhibited have proved harder to trace, although I believe that the fact that this exhibition, by women artists, happened at that time is probably more significant than the works of art shown.

Exhibition by 31 Women proved popular and caught the critics attention, some of it was even favourable. A review in the New Yorker praised work by Fini, Pereira, Sage and Tanning, also Still Life  (a bowl of eggs) by Meraud Guevara. Edward Jewell (the Times) said that the show, “yields one captivating surprise after another”. It is a moot point whether he would have used the word ‘captivating’ if he had been looking at work by male artists.

In April 1943 the gallery put on the first exhibition which included Ad Reinhardt & Jackson Pollock. This was the beginning of the end for Americans’ fascination with European art and history has largely blotted out the earlier exhibitions, including 31 Women and the later show entitled simply The Women. Both were eclipsed by the ‘discovery’ of abstract expressionism and consequent displacement of the European artists. This is in spite of abstract expressionism having many roots in the surrealist concerns of chance and the subconscious. Women artists including 31 Women exhibitors Sonja Sekula, Buffie Johnson and Lee Krasner, the wife of Pollock, worked in the abstract expressionist way, but were side-lined for years.

Exhibition by 31 Women was, nonetheless, an important indicator of how many women there were on the scene, even as far back as the 1920’s and 30’s. Today's women artists are plentiful and highly publicised (although not always to their advantage). Without the 31 Women exhibition, we might not know that women were also an integral part of the avant-garde sixty, eighty, even one hundred years ago.

This is a slightly edited version of the first essay I wrote about the Exhibition by 31 Women, after I first began my research more than 10 years ago.


  1. Who designed the chair Peggy is seated on?

    1. The chair was designed by Frederick Kiesler. He designed the furniture as well as the display space